WASHINGTON – Barbara Amaya ran right into the hands of traffickers. At age 12, Amaya ran away from her abusive home in Fairfax, Va., and into D.C.
She fell into the loop of the child welfare system that didn’t know what to do with her.
“I wasn’t identified at all as a child of need of services, and I was actually labeled ‘incorrigible and uncontrollable,’” she said.
She was shuffled from detention center, to reform school and other schools until finally she ran away and met a girl who led her to a strange apartment. There, a trafficker picked her up and sent her to New York, where she spent 10 years as a victim of sex trafficking.
A new law is trying to fill the gap in the child welfare system that can’t seem to stymie abuse or runaway children, who often end up as victims of child sex trafficking victims. The McCain Institute at Arizona State University hosted a panel Thursday to discuss this law and bills awaiting action that would fight the problems.
One in six runaway children reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children were likely victims of sex trafficking. The center also reported in 2013 that 68 percent of these runaways were in social services or foster care when they ran.
Child sex trafficking is defined by the Department of Justice as to knowingly “recruit, entice, harbor, transport, provide, obtain, or maintain a minor … to engage in a commercial sex act.”
Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., said the welfare system makes children vulnerable to being trafficked because of the lack of procedures and resources to identify cases in which children are at risk.
The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, enacted in May, put procedures in place for child welfare agencies to assess and identify children who are at risk for child trafficking. The legislation also requires agencies to report if children have run away.
Bass said that, while the requirement is helpful, the Administration for Children and Families has yet to create a plan for agencies.
The agency did not reply to requests for comment on Friday.
Allison Green, an attorney at the Children’s Law Center, said accurate data is not readily available because the nature of the crime causes inherent underreporting, victims and their captors often form a traumatic bond and the inaccuracy of data across state lines.
She said that it could be two to three years before there is enough data to make a difference for policy and funding.
Another problem, Bass said, is the criminalization of children being trafficked.
“The girl is not old enough to consent for sex, yet she is called a prostitute,” Bass said. “That doesn’t make sense to me.”
Malika Saada Saar, executive director of Rights4Girls, said child trafficking continues in part because customers aren’t prosecuted.
“When buyers are arrested, if they are arrested, it is for solicitation. It is for a misdemeanor, but what they do, in any other context, it is called statutory rape,” she said.
It took Amaya 40 years to tell her her story. Now 59, Amaya is an author, activist and human rights speaker. She has one grown daughter. Yet, her pregnant pauses as she recalled those memories at the forum Thursday showed how she can be transported back to those dark times.
“I was 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 with a criminal record being sold for the purposes of prostitution, whatever it was in Manhattan and, you know, the adult male was being sent home with nothing, no charge,” Amaya said.
She said she didn’t realize that she was a victim of sex trafficking until she saw a newscast of teens being trafficked a mile away from her home and thought, “Oh my God, that’s what happened to me, and that’s happening now.”
Amaya said culture is still a problem because victims of child trafficking are seen not as victims but as criminals.
“This is not a criminal-justice issue,” she said. “We should not be criminalizing our children for being subjected to serial rape.”
Reach reporter Jessica Pereda at Jessica.firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-408-1493. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
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